The exchange of artillery shells off the Korean Peninsula that seemed to come out of nowhere is fresh evidence of the explosive situation in Asia, the continent forecast to become the world political center of the 21st century.
As a continent Asia has an unfinished past. The Korean conflict began in the mid-20th century and remains unresolved to this day. Tensions there sometimes flare up with fresh force. China also experienced a split at about the same time. Although Mainland China and Taiwan are unlikely to start a war, a certain conflict potential remains. There are also lasting tensions in South Asia, primarily over Kashmir, as a result of the division of the British Indian Empire into India and Pakistan after World War II.
The entire Asia Pacific region falls under the shadow of that war, with the Russian-Japanese dispute over the Kuril Islands being the least offensive element among them. The much more dangerous territorial disputes between China and Japan, Japan and the two Koreas, and even (although to a lesser degree) between Japan and Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia are kept alive by unresolved historical grievances.
A separate deeply felt but carefully concealed problem is that of U.S. troop deployments in Japan and South Korea. Although U.S. forces are ostensibly there to guarantee each of the two states’ security, their presence is a continual reminder to the two countries of their inferior status on the world stage.
Europe spent the second half of the 20th century trying to draw lessons from the events of the preceding 50 years in order to prevent another global conflagration. It eventually succeeded, although some European nations do sometimes succumb to the nationalist sentiments of “historical justice.” But these episodes do not define relations in the Old World.
Although it seemed only recently that Europe had succeeded in suppressing this contagion of inherited aggression, there was clearly no final victory as there is an alarmingly rapid shift to the right in public opinion. But the inoculation against jingoism was so effective that something fundamental would have to change for the disease to flare up again.
Asia did not undergo this kind of rehabilitation process. The main post-war events to touch the region were de-colonization and the appearance of new national states, both of which fostered nationalist sentiments.
After the Korean War, the first hot chapter of the Cold War, the assistance rendered to the state’s regional allies by the Soviet Union and the United States fuelled these conflicts.
The only exception was the war between North Vietnam, supported by its communist allies, and South Vietnam, backed by the United States and other anti-communist nations, in the 1970s. But North Vietnam’s military victory helped it escape the Korean scenario.
The superpowers’ struggle for influence in Asia has not led to the establishment of European-style institutions, because Asia was a secondary player in this global confrontation. This is why borders were not as strictly delineated in Asia as they were in Europe (along the lines of the Helsinki Final Act), and, unlike in Europe, no integration institutions such as NATO and the EEC were established in that part of the world.
The end of the Cold War spurred the rapid growth of the leading Asian countries, with China, India, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam gaining most from globalization. But the dynamic growth of Asia’s economy and influence did more to exacerbate than resolve lingering conflicts.
On the one hand, many countries’ ambitions were laid bare, as was their desire to settle scores with their enemies of old. On the other hand, the world’s focus shifted to Asia, making it even more vulnerable to the growing global chaos. Old political conflicts, combined with heightening economic rivalry and destructive military technology (including the development of nuclear weapons, such as in the “new” nuclear states of North Korea, India and Pakistan), may yet have unpredictable consequences.
Koreans have never had much say about what happens on the peninsula, but their dependence on external forces is now greater than ever. North Korea was expected to collapse in the early 1990s, just like the Soviet Union, but it lived to see another two decades.
China’s protection of North Korea lies in pragmatism rather than in any sense of ethnic sympathy or ideology. China stands to benefit more from maintaining the status quo than from having a united U.S.-influenced Korea as its neighbor. A Korea united without U.S. influence would also be an unwelcome prospect, because of the many issues it has to raise with its neighbors, in particular China and Japan. Tokyo, which fears the unpredictable northerners, hates the idea of a united Korea.
The United States is now busy trying to resolve problems of its own. It is irritated by North Korea’s invulnerability, with its enrichment centrifuges and missile tests. That said, it can use the North Korean factor to strengthen its military presence in Asia Pacific.
By a curious coincidence, after the tragic sinking of the South Korean Cheonan corvette (Seoul claims by a North Korean torpedo), in March 2010, the decision was taken to postpone the planned transfer of military command (in any arising conflict) from the United States to South Korea. As for Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, he retired soon after, suggesting that U.S. troops should leave Okinawa.
Combined with this stormy status-quo, many more surprises, all firmly rooted in Asia’s history, no doubt lie in store for us. Take Taiwan: it seems stable enough today. But Beijing is following the forward-looking policy of rapprochement, gradually building unbreakable bonds with the island.
Let’s imagine a potential situation that is not as unlikely as it may seem at first glance.
Suppose the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) loses the presidential election in Taiwan in 2012 to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), whose goal is to officially declare Taiwan independent. Beijing would view this as casus belli.
Suppose also, that the U.S. presidential election in the same year is won by a Republican, who wants to restore the United States’ undisputed leadership in the world, cutting China down to size in the process.
And suppose Xi Jinping is elected president at the 18th congress of the Chinese Communist Party and decides to prove his ability to protect China’s national interests firmly and uncompromisingly.
Those factors would combine to create a situation that would make the current tensions around the two Koreas look like child’s play.